The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan. G.P. Putnam's Sons: 415 pages; $22.95.
A mother finds a pink plastic box which once belonged to her grown daughter. "My Secret Treasures," it says on it. She wonders what it contains: "What hurts and disappointments? And if I opened the box and saw a stranger, what then? What if this daughter inside the box was nothing like the one I had imagined I had raised?"
Amy Tan's second novel, "The Kitchen God's Wife," opens the "secret boxes" that a mother and daughter keep from one another. The novel makes me wonder if there ever was a time, in some ancient society, when mothers and daughters would sit down with one another and share their secrets. Did they take turns, each listening patiently while the other told her story? This ritual, if it ever existed, must be buried somewhere under a mountain of air-kisses and painted-white smiles.
The novel begins with Pearl, a woman who needs her Chinese-born mother, but cannot seem to connect with her. Exasperated at her mother Winnie's belief that everything bad that happens to one is the direct result of some past wrong decision, Pearl claims that Winnie begins conversations "as if we were already in the middle of an argument." To Winnie, luck is not constant. It is something that can be broken down, rebuilt, and destroyed again by a simple event. Pearl, more pragmatic, has a hard time communicating with her mother, who holds fast to her beliefs.
Pearl strains to keep together the weblike, fragile strands of her relationships with her mother, her own husband and children, and her inactive MS. Pearl is afraid of the worry and anger she would bring on if she were to tell her mother about her disease--Winnie might start dredging up the past once more to see what went wrong that would somehow cause Pearl to be cursed in such a way. And Pearl would feel to blame for her mother's frustration.
At the same time, Winnie is afraid to tell her daughter about her early life in China. And she is afraid to reveal the even scarier truth of who Pearl's real father was. She is afraid this reality will make her daughter feel unloved. How will Pearl feel, she wonders, when her mother tells her that her father was not Jimmie Louie like she thought, but Wen Fu, a grim and sadistic batterer whom Winnie feared would find her even after she emigrated?
The two might go on forever being reluctantly and uncomfortably distant in this manner but for Auntie Helen, the ubiquitous plot complication. Helen, who is not really Winnie's sister-in-law, thinks she is dying and yearns to finally tell the truth about her life. But to reveal her story would be to unravel everyone else's. Telling the truth can split open the world. Auntie Helen warns Pearl that if she doesn't speak to her mother about having MS, then she will do it herself. Then Auntie Helen turns around and threatens Winnie that she'll tell Pearl who her real father is (among other things) if Winnie doesn't do it soon.
Both women are distraught. Winnie, however, finally decides to tell the story of her life. And the rest of the novel radiates from a chapter called "Ten Thousand Things." In several versions, Winnie tells of her own mother, who died or disappeared when she was six, of facing the horror of a badly arranged marriage, and of living in revolutionary China. Her stories wind around and through each other like smoke; to Winnie, all versions can be simultaneously true.
Like Tan's first novel, "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife" enfolds the dreams, tales, and lives of the Chinese mother and her Chinese-American daughter. But this time, instead of listening to multiple stories, we hear only two, and then only one--the wife's tale.
If you are Amy Tan, you are probably smiling right now, and putting your feet up somewhere, setting aside the welcome reviews of your first novel (which became, by the end of 1989, the most admired novel on the best seller list), and picking up piles of adoring critiques of your new book "The Kitchen God's Wife." You have twice brilliantly followed the two crossing trajectories of mother and daughter. You won't ever write another brochure for a computer corporation.